In October 2015, I met a Syrian family near Spielfeld on the border of Slovenia and Austria. They were huddled together in the cold, waiting to cross into the first country in the EU that was even slightly capable of receiving them.
At that time, nearly 7,000 migrants from Syria, Iraq and beyond were landing in Greece every day. Making a notable exception for Angela Merkel’s conscience, most European governments were doing nothing more than passing the problem as quickly as possible to their neighbours.
At Spielfeld, it was instantly apparent to me that World War III had begun. Hundreds of refugees were arriving by trains that ran every two hours. They walked from the station towards Austria along a closed highway in the identical marching mass that I last saw in black and white photographs from World War II. Except this was happening right in front of my eyes, in three dimensions and in colour.
By the end of 2015, 65.3 million people would be forcibly displaced from their homes, the highest number since the post-war period. This can only be World War III. We just haven’t felt it yet: 86% of refugees are hosted by developing countries. At the end of the last road in Slovenia there was a long queue, as people waited to filter through huge white tents where they would be recorded and passed onto Austria. For the wealthy EU, this global conflict is about to get real.
I crossed easily to the Austrian side, joining hundreds of people suspended between nations. Dozens sat around waiting patiently on the cold ground, tending rough fires made from scavenged wood and rubbish. The trees were stripped bare, and acrid smoke from burnt plastic rose into the frozen air.
A wire fence penned in those who queued for Austria and the refugee camps. The crush is humiliating. One man begged for water for his children. An announcement burst out over the rough camp-fires, in Pashto, Arabic and English: “Please stay calm. Take a seat and stay calm.”
Hossam and his wife, their three children, and his wife’s father, sister and brother have travelled here from Aleppo in Syria. “I can’t bring my father and mother,” Hossam says, “because they are very sick with cancer.” They’re in hospital in Aleppo, but he can’t speak on the phone with them any more because his Greek SIM card doesn’t work in Austria.
Hossam’s a secondary school maths teacher. Three weeks before I met him, Hossam’s school classroom took a direct hit, blowing a hole in the roof. Teachers and pupils hid in the school for five hours, unable to escape because of snipers, who would shoot anyone and everyone. “The snipers don’t care about children or woman or man: they kill all.”
Hossam’s children’s school also came under attack that same day. ISIS had entered Aleppo and suddenly there was no bread, no water. “Aleppo before was a very beautiful city,” he says. “Now everyone who stays in Aleppo is waiting for death.”
Hossam’s journey “was not so bad”. The family took only twelve days to reach this No Man’s Land on the edge of Austria. They travelled from Syria to Lebanon, then took a boat to Turkey, and another boat with thirty others to Greece, where they were washed up on a small military island base.
From there they were taken to Lemnos where they paid for another boat to Athens, a public bus to Macedonia and into Serbia. Travel through Croatia and Slovenia, all the way to Spielfeld, was laid on by governments desperate to move the problem further up the line as fast as possible.
As we stood around those acrid campfires, Hossam told me that he wanted to take his family to Germany, where his wife’s brother lived. I wished him good luck, swapped email addresses and left him there, waiting.
Over a year later, an email arrived.
Hossam, his wife and their three children were now settled in the small town of Moutier, nestled in the Jura mountains of French-speaking Switzerland. When I told an Austrian refugee worker this, she was taken aback: “Switzerland, are you sure? Not even Austrians can get into Switzerland!”
“The beginning of the road to Switzerland was very difficult,” Hossam told me in his email. “After entering Austria, we had two days to go to Germany. Of course in the cold and rain.” Although he was helped a great deal by UN and Red Cross refugee workers, after a time Hossam decided his family would be better off escaping from the German shelters. They crossed the border to Switzerland by train and then walked to the nearest refugee centre in Basel.
From there, the young family were transferred to a holding camp high up in the Alps. It was winter 2015 and they endured deep snow and cold. Mercifully, they only stayed at this camp for two and a half days. “The system is more like the military regime,” Hossam says. Phones were forbidden, you couldn’t bring your own food and weren’t allowed to eat after six in the evening. “We suffered a lot with the kids for food.”
Next they were sent to a refugee accommodation centre in the village of Malleray, Bern. The family lived in a room there for five months – but the kids couldn’t go to school.
Then finally: “Four months ago we received a beautiful town house in Moutier.” The kids could go to school and the parents could begin language courses. “My wife bought the French course and I bought courses of French and German,” Hossam writes, adding proudly: “because my level of French is excellent allowed me to study two languages together.”
Hossam seems content that his family is, to a certain extent, now settled. But life as a refugee is never quite secure. “We had our second meeting with Migration three months ago,” Hossam says. “We are currently waiting for the answer.”
Many thanks to Hossam and his family for sharing their story. Sometimes the most important thing we can do is remember.